The Nightmare of Reason: The Life of Franz Kafka by Ernst Pawel – part one (1984)

‘What do I have in common with the Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.’
(Franz Kafka, 8 January 1914)

This is a hugely enjoyable biography of Franz Kafka, chiefly because it is itself so unKafkaesque, so informative and logical and entertaining.

Although the subject matter and settings of Kafka’s novels and short stories vary, what all Kafka’s works have in common (well, apart from the really short stories) is the long-winded and often convoluted nature of his prose which seeks to reflect the over-self-conscious and over-thinking paranoia, anxiety and, sometimes, terror of his protagonists, narrators or characters.

Pawel’s book, by contrast, is a wonderfully refreshing combination of deep historical background, penetrating psychological insights, fascinating detail about the literary and cultural world of turn-of-the-century Prague, and hair-raising quotes from Kafka’s diaries, letters and works, all conveyed in brisk and colourful prose. Pawel is about as variedly entertaining as prose can be, which came as a huge relief after struggling through the monotone grimness of a story like The Burrow.

Three ethnicities

If you read any of Kafka’s works it’s difficult to avoid blurbs and introductions which give away the two key facts of his biography – 1. his lifelong fear of his father, Herrmann, and 2. how he spent his entire working life in a state insurance company, itself embedded in the elephantine web of Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy.

The Workmen’s Accident and Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia was an integral part of the pullulating Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy that, like a giant net of near-epic intricacy, covered the entire Hapsburg domain. (The Nightmare of Reason, page 183)

Between them these two facts can be used as the basis of entry-level commentaries on Kafka’s stories, interpreting them as being about either:

  1. anxiety and dread of some nameless father figure who inspires an irrational sense of paralysing guilt
  2. or (as the two famous novels do) as unparalleled descriptions of vast, impenetrable bureaucracies which the helpless protagonists can never understand or appeal to

So far, so obvious. What I enjoyed most in this biography was all the stuff I didn’t know. First and foremost, Pawel gives the reader a much deeper understanding of the history, the politics and, especially, the ethnic make-up of Bohemia, where Kafka was born and lived most his life, and of its capital city, Prague – and explains why this mattered so much.

What comes over loud and clear is the tripartite nature of the situation, meaning there were three main ethnic groups in Bohemia, who all hated each other:

1. The majority of the population of Prague and Bohemia was Czech-speaking Czechs, who became increasingly nationalistic as the 19th century progressed, lobbying for a nation state of their own, outspokenly resentful of the Austrian authorities and of their allies in the German-speaking minority.

2. A minority of the population, around 10 to 15%, were ethnic Germans. They regarded themselves as culturally and racially superior to the Czechs, who they thought of as inferior ‘slavs’. The Germans were bolstered 1. by their proximity to Germany itself, with its immense cultural and literary heritage, and 2. because they spoke the same language as the Austrians who ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Most schools in Bohemia taught German as the official language, resulting in a state of civil war between the two languages and low level conflict between the two cultures – Pawel describes it as an ‘abyss’ (p.140).

Kafka, for example, although he was complimented on his spoken Czech, never considered himself fluent in it, and was educated, preferred to speak and wrote in German. In reference books he is referred to as a master of German prose.

3. And then there were the Jews. Pawel goes into great detail and is absolutely fascinating about the position of Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Bohemia in particular. He goes back to the Emperor Joseph II’s 1781 Patent of Toleration, which allowed Jews and Protestants for the first time to practice their religion in the Empire, and the charter for religious freedom granted the Jews of Galicia in 1789. From these statutes dated a series of other laws enacted throughout the nineteenth century designed to ’emancipate’ the Jews from a range of medieval laws which had placed huge restrictions on how they could dress, where they could go, what jobs they could hold.

But this so-called emancipation was a double-edged sword, because it also abolished the communal autonomy which the Jews had enjoyed, it forbad the wearing of traditional Jewish clothes, and it enforced the Germanisation of Jewish culture.

The effect of all this was that, through the 19th century, successive generations of Jews tried to break out of the squalor and poverty of their predominantly rural settlements, emigrated to the big cities of the Empire, dropped their traditional clothing and haircuts, learned to speak German better than the Germans, and in every way tried to assimilate.

Both [Kafka’s] parents belonged to the first generation of assimilated Jews. (p.54)

Unfortunately, this ‘aping’ of German culture mainly served to breed resentment among ‘true’ Germans against these cultural ‘impostors’, with the net result that, the more the Jews tried to assimilate to German culture, the more the Germans hated them for it.

Thus, in a bitter, world-historical irony, an entire generation of urbanised, secular Jews found themselves in love with and practicing a Germanic culture whose rightful ‘owners’, the Germans, hated them with an unremitting anti-semitism (pp.99, 149).

And these hyper-intelligent Jews were totally aware of the fact, bitterly reminded of it every time another anti-semitic article was published in their newspapers or anti-semitic ruit took place in their towns. And so it helped to create a feeling that if only they weren’t Jews everything would be alright. It helped to create the phenomenon known as Jewish self-hatred, a condition Pawel thinks Kafka suffered from, acutely, all his life (p.108).

(Though not as much as the journalist Karl Kraus. In a typically fascinating digression, Pawel devotes an excoriating passage to Kraus, a secular Jew born into a wealthy industrialist family, who became a leading satirical writer and journalist, and devoted his flaming energies to protecting the ‘purity’ of the German language, and – according to Pawels – castigating ‘the Jews’ for importing provincial jargon and Yiddishisms. Kraus was, in Pawel’s view, ‘the quintessential incarnation of Jewish self-hatred’ (p.226).)

And don’t forget that, all the while they were the subject of German anti-semitism, the Jews also got it in the neck from the other side, from the nationalist Czechs, the more Germanic the Jews strove to become, the more the Czech nationalists hated them for sucking up to their oppressors. The Jews got it from both directions.

I knew about Austrian anti-semitism, not least from reading biographies of Freud. But I didn’t know anything about the distinctive dynamic of Czech anti-semitism.

The emancipation of the Jews

Pawel describes all this in such depth and detail because it explains the impact on Kafka’s own biography – namely that Franz’s father, Herrmann, was one of that generation of Jews who, in the mid-nineteenth-century, escaped from the grinding poverty of the rural shtetl, migrated to the city, and finagled the money to set himself up in business, to try to rise in the world.

One of the best-known things about Kafka is how he lived in abject fear of his father, who instilled a permanent sense of terror and anxiety in him, but Pawel explains brilliantly how Kafka senior was a highly representative figure, just one among a great wave of Jews of his generation who escaped rural poverty, migrated to the city, became more or less successful businessmen and… sired sons who despised them.

He wasn’t alone. Pawel shows how it was a pattern repeated across educated Jewry (p.98).

Seen from this historical perspective, Sigmund Freud (born 1856 in Příbor in what is now the Moravian province of the Czech Republic) is a kind of patron saint of his and the slightly later generation (Kafka was born in 1883) for Freud’s father, Jakob, was the son of devout Hasidic Jews, who, in the classic style, moved from his home district to the big city of Vienna where he struggled to run a business as a wool merchant, rejecting along the way all the appurtenances of the rural Judaism which were so associated with poverty and provincialism. It was as a result of Jakob’s deracination, that his son decisively broke with any religious belief, and became the immensely successful and highly urbanised founder of psychoanalysis.

Same or something similar with a whole generation of Jewish-German writers artists and composers – Kafka, Brod, Hermann Broch, Wittgenstein, Karl Kraus, Walter Benjamin, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and so on (pp.98, 99). It was a world of staggering artistic brilliance – this was the generation which contributed to and helped define the whole idea of Modern Art. But it was all built on a volcano, the fierce hatred of ‘genuine’ Germans for the ‘cosmopolitan’ Jews who (they thought) were appropriating their culture.

This was the atmosphere of Kafka’s world, dense with hate. (p.44)

Judaism is replaced by literature

A further consequence emerges from Pawel’s historical approach which is that this generation, the first generation of truly urbanised Jews, which had largely lost its religious faith in the process, nonetheless continued, like their rabbinical forefathers, the Jewish obsession with the written word.

Only instead of devoting their lives to interpreting the Holy Scriptures as their Hasidic forefathers, rabbis and holy men had – these largely irreligious urbanites now nagged and worried about secular types of writing – namely literature and philosophy and criticism and aesthetics. God may have been declared dead and words no longer used to pray and worship – but instead, the endless finagling of rabbis and commentators was now applied to existence itself, to a scrupulous cross-examination of modern life in the hurly-burly of hectic cities.

The Jewish intelligentsia on the whole remained isolated, inbred and inward looking…Theirs was a paradoxically communal shtetl of cantankerous individualists huddled in the warrens of their self-absorption, with literature as their religion and self-expression their road to salvation. (p.153)

As Pawel puts it with typically colourful rhetoric:

Kafka’s true ancestors, the substance of his flesh and spirit, were an unruly crowd of Talmudists, Cabalists, medieval mystics resting uneasy beneath the jumble of heaving, weatherbeaten tombstones in Prague’s Old Cemetery, seekers in search of a reason for faith. (p.100)

The same intense scrutiny the forefathers paid to every word and accent of the Talmud, their heirs now devoted to the production of texts exploring the experience of the modern world which boiled down, again and again, in the hands of its most dogged exponents, to an investigation of language itself.

And so we find Kafka in December 1910 making one of the hundreds and hundreds of diary entries he devoted obsessively to the subject of writing, of words, of prose, of literature:

I cannot write. I haven’t managed a single line I’d care to acknowledge; on the contrary, I threw out everything – it wasn’t much – that I had written since Paris. My whole body warns me of every word, and every word first looks around in all directions before it lets itself be written down by me. The sentences literally crumble in my hands.

‘Every word first looks around in all directions before it lets itself be written down by me’! In Kafka’s hands, even language itself is gripped by fear.

Kafka’s diet

Kafka was a lifelong hypochondriac who also happened to suffer from actual illnesses and conditions. From early in adulthood he experimented with a variety of cures from surprisingly silly quack doctors. He became obsessed with diet, first becoming a vegetarian, and then implementing an increasingly complicated regime of diets, which Pawel describes in detail.

But once again Pawel uses this to make the kind of socio-psychological point for which I really enjoyed this book, when he points out the following: In the Jewish tradition, strict adherence to kashrut or traditional Jewish dietary law linked the individual to the community, made him one with a much larger people and their heritage – whereas the dietary rituals Kafka made for himself completely cut him off not only from the Jewish tradition, but even from his own family, and ultimately his own friends. Later in life Kafka:

gradually got into the habit of taking all his meals by himself and intensely disliked eating in anyone’s presence. (p.209)

Like everything else in his life, even eating became a source of anxiety and dread and shame.

Hermann Kafka and his family

Although Pawel records the lifelong terror and feeling of humiliation which Herrmann inculcated in his over-sensitive son, he injects a strong dose of scepticism. As you read Franz’s Letter to his Father, the sustained thirty-page indictment of Herrmann which poor Franz wrote at the age of 36, you can’t help beginning to feel sorry a bit sorry for Herrmann. It wasn’t his fault that he emerged from grinding poverty all but illiterate and had to work hard all his life to support his family. Whereas Franz enjoyed 16 years of education and wangled a cushy job at the Workers Insurance Company thanks to a well-connected uncle. From one point of view, Franz is the typically ungrateful, spoilt son.

And in a subtle reinterpretation of the traditional story, Pawel wonders if it wasn’t Kafka’s mother, Julie, who did most damage to her son. How? By being totally aware of young Franz’s hyper-sensitive nature, but doing nothing about it – by effectively ignoring his hyper-sensitive soul in order to suck up to her bullying husband.

Because, as Pawel points out, Kafka gave the notorious Letter to His Father to his mother to read and then pass on to the family ‘tyrant’. She certainly did read it but never passed it on, returning it to Franz after a week and, well… Franz could easily have handed it over to his father by hand – or posted it. But he chose not to. That, Pawel speculates, is because the letter had in fact achieved its purpose. Not to address his father at all, but successfully implicating his mother in his childhood and teenage trauma. After all:

All parents fail their children, and all children weave their parents failure into the texture of their lives. (p.82)

As this all suggests, Kafka’s story was very much a family affair, a psychodrama played out in the claustrophobic walls of the Prague apartment he shared with his mother, father and three sisters.

Indeed it is a little staggering to read Pawel’s description of the apartment the family moved to in 1912, whose walls were so thin that everyone could hear everyone else cough or sneeze or open a window or plump a book down on a table – let alone all the other necessary bodily functions. What a terrible, claustrophobic environment it was (and we know this, because we have hundreds of diary entries made by Franz moaning about it) and yet – he didn’t leave.

More than once Pawel suggests there is something very Jewish about this smothering family environment and the way that, although he could easily have left once he had a secure job, Kafka chose to remain within the bosom of his smothering family.

It’s aspects of Kafka’s psychology and life like this which drive Pawel’s frequent comparisons and invocations of Freud, dissector and analyst of the smothering turn-of-the-century, urban, Jewish family, investigator of the kind of family lives that the young women of his case studies made up hysterias and neuroses, and the young men made up violent animal fantasies, to escape from.

But here, as in other ways, Kafka stands out as taking part in a recognisable general trend – but then going way beyond it – or moulding it to his own peculiar needs – because at some level, deep down, he needed to be smothered.

Anti-Semitism and Zionism

And all around them, surrounding the anxieties of family life, were the continual ethnic tensions which regularly broke out into actual violence. Sometimes it was Czech nationalists rioting against their Austro-German overlords in the name of Czech nationalism – as they did in the so-called Prague Pogrom of 1897 when Czech nationalists started off by ransacking well-known German cultural and commercial establishments, but ended up devoting three days to attacking Jewish shops and synagogues and anyone who appeared to be a Jew.

Slowly, over his lifetime, Kafka noted the situation getting steadily worse. Fifteen years later, the 60th anniversary of the accession of the Emperor Franz-Joseph led to violent attacks organised by the Czech National Socialists on German properties, which led to troops being sent in and the imposition of martial law (p.298).

But whether it was the Germans or the Czechs, and whether it was the journalistic or bureaucratic attacks of the intelligentsia, or crude physical attacks on the street (and street fighting occurring on an almost weekly basis, p.205):

The extremist demagogues prevailing in both camps were equally vocal in their common hostility to the Jews.

This pervasive fearfulness among Jews helps explain the origins of Zionism, first given theoretical and practical expression by Theodor Herzl, another urbanised and ‘assimilated’ Jewish son of poorer, more rural parents, from the same generation as Freud (Herzl was born a year later, in 1860).

In 1896, deeply shocked by the anti-semitism revealed by the Dreyfus Affair in France (1894-1906), Herzl published Der Judenstaat, in which he argued that anti-semitism in Europe couldn’t be ‘cured’ but only avoided altogether, by leaving Europe and founding a state solely for Jews.

The theme of Zionism looms large in Kafka’s life. Many of his school and university friends became ardent Zionists – including his good friend and literary executor, Max Brod, who managed to escape Prague on the last train before the Nazis arrived, and successfully made it to Palestine. Zionism it was one of the big socio-political movements of the time, along with socialism, anarchism, and Tolstoyan pacifism. (pp.61, 290)

And it was a practical movement. The Bohemian Zionists didn’t just campaign for the establishment of a foreign homeland; closer to home they organised the community, publishing a weekly magazine named Self Defence edited by Kafka’s friend Felix Weltsch (one of the many writers, journalists, critics and poets who Pawel tells us about).

Above all, they preached the idea that all the Jewish hopes for ‘assimilation’ were a fantasy: the Jews who worshipped German culture were adulating their abuser. There could never be full assimilation and the sooner the Jews realised it and planned for their own salvation the better. Tragically, the Zionists were to be proved entirely right.

So from Kafka’s twenties onwards, Zionism was one of the half dozen cultural and political themes of the day. Late in life Kafka encouraged his sisters to develop agricultural skills preparatory to emigrating to Palestine. It was a constant possibility, or dream of his, mentioned in diaries and letters although, being Kafka, he knew it was not a dream he would ever live to fulfil.

Multiple reasons to be afraid

Thus it is that Pawel’s book brilliantly conveys the multiple levels or sources of Kafka’s terror.

  1. He was born over-sensitive and anxious and would have had a hard time adapting to real life anywhere. He was painfully shy and morbidly self-aware.
  2. His father was a philistine bully who ridiculed his son’s weakness and intellectual interests, exacerbating the boy’s paranoia and anxieties in every way.
  3. In newspapers and even in lectures at the university he attended, Kafka would routinely read or hear the most blistering attacks on the Jews as enemies of culture, emissaries of poverty and disease from pestilent rural slums, Christ-killers and followers of an antiquated anti-Enlightenment superstition.
  4. And then, in the streets, there would be periodic anti-Jewish riots, attacks on individual Jews or smashing up Jewish shops.

In the midst of explaining all this, Pawel makes a point which it is easy to miss. He notes that in Kafka’s surviving correspondence with Max Brod or with his three successive girlfriends, Kafka rarely if ever actually alludes to anti-semitism, or to the street violence, clashes, public disorders and growing power of the anti-semitic nationalist parties in Prague. Pawel makes what I thought was a really powerful comment:

It was only in his fiction that he felt both safe and articulate enough to give voice to his sense of terror. (p.204)

An insight I thought was really worth pondering… something to do with the way fiction, or literature, can be a way of controlling and ordering the otherwise chaotic and overwhelming, the personally overwhelming and the socially overwhelming…

Anyway, that’s a lot of sources of fear and terror to be getting on with, before you even get into Franz’s more personal anxieties – not least about sex and everything sexual, which sent him into paroxysms of self-disgust.

Sex

I had no idea that Kafka was such an habitué of brothels. I mean not now and then. I mean routinely and regularly, as well as having sexual escapades with all sorts of working class girls, serving girls and servants and waitresses and barmaids and cleaning women in the many hotels he stayed at on his business trips. We know this because it is all recorded in the copious diaries he kept, and in his extensive correspondence with Max Brod and he even mentions it in letters to his various fiancées.

The subject prompts another one of Pawel’s wide-ranging cultural investigations which I found so fascinating, this time a lengthy description of the way the madonna-whore dichotomy experienced a kind of ill-fated, decadent blossoming in turn of the century Austro-Hungary – in the Vienna we all know about with its Klimt and Schiele paintings, but also in Germanic Prague.

Sex… was the sinister leitmotif dominating literature, drama, and the arts of the period. And beyond the poetic metaphors loomed the brutal real-life affinity of sex and death – botched abortions, childbed fever, syphilis, suicides. (p.77)

All his friends were at it, they all slept with prostitutes: we learn that Max Brod’s marriage got into trouble because he simply refused to carry on sleeping with every woman he could. The women – we learn – came in different grades, from professionals in brothels, to semi-pros in doorsteps, to amateurs – cleaners and suchlike – who would give you a quick one for cash.

All of which exacerbated the aforementioned Madonna-Whore complex, whereby women were divided into two categories – the generally working-class whores you paid to have dirty sex with – and the pure, high-minded and chaste young ladies you accompanied to concerts and were expected to marry (p.180).

To an astonishing extent, Kafka was a fully paid-up member of this club and had an extraordinary number of casual sexual partners – innumerable encounters which he then followed up with the predictable paroxysms of self-loathing and self-hatred. In this respect he was surprisingly unoriginal.

There is a lot more to be said about the relationship between Kafka’s intense but guilt-ridden sex life and the peculiar relations his two key protagonists have with women (in The Trial and The Castle) but that’s for others to write about. I’m interested in history, and language.

The Workmen’s Accident and Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia

It is a revelation to discover that Kafka was good at his job in this insurance company. Not just good, vital. His quick intelligence and pedantic attention to detail were just what was needed. He was tasked with auditing safety regulations about a whole range of industrial processes, a job which required him to travel extensively around the country, staying in hotels (shagging chambermaids if possible) and visiting a huge range of factories and workplaces.

His annual reviews still survive and glow with praise from his superiors and colleagues. He started work at the company’s offices in 1908, was promoted within a year, given full civil service tenure in 1910, advanced to Junior Secretary in 1913, to Secretary in 1920, and senior Secretary in 1922. His immediate superior, Chief Inspector Pfohl, wrote that without him the entire department would collapse. He was a model employee, prompt, intelligent, diligent and polite, as all the testimony from his colleagues confirms.

Fourteen years of following bureaucratic procedures in an institute which was itself part of the wider bureaucratic Empire. And of writing official reports in the tone and style of a senior bureaucrat. You’d have to be quite dense not to link these factors with a) the visions of a vast topless bureaucracy which form the core of the two great novels, and b) with the parody of official, academic-bureaucratic style which is so omnipresent, especially in the later stories.

Kafka’s officialese

Commenting on the contradiction between Kafka the florid hypochondriac and Kafka the smartly turned-out insurance inspector, a contemporary Prague’s literary circle, Oskar Baum, is quoted about how the mental or intellectual structures of the workplace, of its official and stern prose, mapped very handily onto Kafka’s intensely personal obsessions with writing.

By nature he was a fanatic full of luxuriating fantasy, but he kept its glow in check by constantly striving toward strict objectivity. To overcome all cloying or seductive sentimental raptures and fuzzy-minded fantasising was part of his cult of purity – a cult quasi-religious in spirit, though often eccentric in its physical manifestation. He created the most subjective imagery, but it had to manifest itself in the form of utmost objectivity (quoted on page 133)

It’s easy to overlook, but this is a profoundly distinctive aspect of Kafka’s art which is easy to overlook: that all these delirious and often visionary stories are told in very formal and precise prose, and in a style which, in the later stories, becomes really heavily drenched in bureaucratic or academic or official rhetoric.

Pawel’s lurid style

So I found the way Pawel’s factual information about the social, economic and political changes in Bohemia leading up to Kafka’s birth – specifically the changing role of Jews in Bohemian culture – and then his detailed account of Franz’s family life and how that was woven into the complicated social and intellectual currents of the time, really built up a multi-layered understanding of Kafka’s life and times.

But curiously at odds with all this is Pawel’s own very uneven style. One minute he is describing statistics about industrial production or the percentage population of the different ethnicities in the tone of a government report or Wikipedia article:

Prague’s German-speaking minority was rapidly dwindling in proportion to the fast-growing Czech majority, from 14.6 percent in 1880, when the first language census was taken, to 13.6 percent in 1889, Kafka’s first school year. The city’s population totaled 303,000 at the time; of these, 41,400 gave German as their first and principal language. (p.31)

Or:

Between 1848 and 1890, Bohemia’s share in the total industrial output of the monarchy rose from 46 to 59 percent. By 1890, Bohemia and Moravia accounted for 65 percent of Austria’s industrial labour force. (p.37)

The next, he is writing wild and extravagant similes which seem to belong to another kind of book altogether. Here he is describing one of Kafka’s teachers:

Gschwind, author of several studies in linguistics, was rightfully regarded as an eminent classicist, and one can only speculate on the reasons that led him to waste his scholarly gifts and encyclopedic knowledge on a gang of recalcitrant teenagers who, as a group, progressed in classical philology with all the speed and enthusiasm of a mule train being driven up a mountain. (p.73)

Here he is describing Kafka’s anxiety about his end-of-school exams:

The prospect of those apocalyptic trials turned the final school years into a frenzied last-ditch effort to shore up the crumbling ramparts of knowledge, retrieve eight years of facts and figures, and prepare for a bloodbath. (p.76)

Once he starts engaging with Kafka’s stories, Pawel often adopts their phraseology, or at least their worldview, in over-the-top descriptions which could have been penned by Edgar Allen Poe.

Kafka’s impulse was basically sound – that of a trapped, starving animal wanting to claw its way out and sink its teeth into a solid food. (p.114)

Here he is describing the ferociously competitive literary world of Edwardian Prague:

In their panic it was every man for himself, a wild stampeded of gregarious loners grappling with monsters spawned in their own bellies. (p.155)

Or describing the detailed and self-punishing diaries Kafka kept all his adult life.

These so-called diaries assumed many forms and functions, from the writer’s version of the artist’s sketchbook to a tool for self-analysis; they were a fetishistic instrument of self-mutilation, a glimpse of reason at the heart of madness, and an errant light in the labyrinth of loneliness. (p.213)

In fact you can watch Pawel’s style go from sensible to overblown in just that one sentence.

I’ve read criticisms of the book which ridicule Pawel’s purple prose and certainly, from a po-faced academic point of view, much of his writing can sound a bit ludicrous. But as a reader I found it deeply enjoyable. It made me smile. Sometimes it was so over the top it made me laugh out loud.

I liked it for at least two reasons: after struggling with the long-winded and often very official and bureaucratic prose of late Kafka, reading Pawel’s juicy similes and purple paragraphs was like going from black and white to colour.

Secondly, it matches Kafka’s own hysteria. Kafka really was a very, very weird person. His letters abound in the most extreme language of paralysing fear and inchoate terror and crippling anxiety.

My fear… is my substance, and probably the best part of me.

He describes not being able to stand up for fear, not being able to walk for fear, not being able to face people or say anything because of the terror it caused him.

This craving I have for people which turns to fear the moment it reaches fulfilment (letter of July 1912)

– all symptoms of what Pawel calls his ‘near-pathological sensitivity’.

Kafka describes the way words crumble at his touch, his heart is going to explode, his head is too heavy to carry. He talked and wrote regularly about suicide (except that, in typical Kafkaesque fashion, he wrapped it round with paradoxes and parables).

Always the wish to die, and the still-just-hanging on, that alone is love (Diary, 22 October 113)

In other words, much of Pawel’s lurid and melodramatic writing, while not in the same league as Kafka’s, while much more obvious and pulpy and sometimes quite silly – nevertheless is not an unreasonable way to try and catch the permanent atmosphere of extremity and hyperbole which Kafka lived in all the time. I thought it was a reasonable attempt to translate Kafka’s own worldview from Kafkaese into phraseology which is easier for you and me to process and understand.

Fear, disgust, and rage were what this recalcitrant bundle of taut nerves, brittle bones, frail organs and coddled flesh had aroused in him from earliest childhood.

And sometimes Pawel’s phrases are so colourful and exaggerated that they’re funny. And humour, real laugh-out-loud humour, is in short supply in this story.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross (2012)

I will attempt to show that the chasm separating biology and chemistry is bridgeable, that Darwinian theory can be integrated into a more general chemical theory of matter, and that biology is just chemistry, or to be more precise, a sub-branch of chemistry – replicative chemistry. (p.122)

Repetitive and prolix

This book is 190 pages long. It is much harder to read than it need be because Pross is a bad writer with very bad habits, namely 1. irritating repetition and 2. harking back and forward. The initial point which he repeats again and again in the first 120 pages is that nobody knows the secret of the origins of life and all previous attempts to solve it have been dead ends.

So, what can we conclude regarding the emergence of life on our planet? The short answer: almost nothing. (p.109)

We don’t know how to go about making life because we don’t really know what life is, and we don’t know what life is, because we don’t understand the principles that led to its emergence. (p.111)

The efforts to uncover probiotic-type chemistry, while of considerable interest in their own right, were never likely to lead us to the ultimate goal – understanding how life on earth emerged. (p.99)

Well, at the time of writing, the so-called Holy Grail (the Human Genome sequence) and the language of life that it was supposed to have taught us have not delivered the promised goods. (p.114)

But the systems biology approach has not proved a nirvana… (p.116)

Non-equilibrium thermodynamics has not proved to be the hoped-for breakthrough in seeking greater understanding of biological complexity. (p.119)

A physically based theory of life continues to elude us. (p.119)

While Conway’s Life game has opened up interesting insights into complex systems in general, direct insights into the nature of living systems do not appear to have been forthcoming. (p.120)

The book is so repetitive I though the author and his editor must have Alzheimer’s Disease. On page viii we are told that the physicist Erwin Schrödinger wrote a pithy little book titled What Is Life? which concluded that present-day physics and chemistry can’t explain the phenomenon of life. Then, on page xii, we’re told that the physicist Erwin Schrödinger’ found the issue highly troublesome’. Then on page 3 that the issue ‘certainly troubled the great physicists of the century, amongst them Bohr, Schrödinger and Wigner’. Then on page 36, we learn that:

Erwin Schrödinger, the father of quantum mechanics, whose provocative little book What Is Life? we mentioned earlier, was particularly puzzled by life’s strange thermodynamic behaviour.

When it comes to Darwin we are told on page 8 that:

Darwin himself explicitly avoided the origin of life question, recognising that within the existing state of knowledge the question was premature.

and then, in case we have senile dementia or the memory of a goldfish, on page 35 he tells us that:

Darwin deliberately side-stepped the challenge, recognising that it could not be adequately addressed within the existing state of knowledge.

As to the harking back and forth, Pross is one of those writers who is continually telling you he’s going to tell you something, and then continually reminding you that he told you something back in chapter 2 or chapter 4 – but nowhere in the reading process do you actually get clearly stated the damn thing he claims to be telling.

As we mentioned in chapter 4…

As noted above…

I will say more on this point subsequently…

We will consider a possible resolution of this sticky problem in chapter 7…

As discussed in chapter 5… as we will shortly see… As we have already pointed out… As we have discussed in some detail in chapter 5…  described in detail in chapter 4…

In this chapter I will describe… In this chapter I will attempt…

I will defer this aspect of the discussion until chapter 8…

Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today.

Shallow philosophy

It is a philosophy book written by a chemist. As such it comes over as extremely shallow and amateurish. Pross namechecks Wittgenstein, and (pointlessly) tells us that ‘tractatus’ is Latin for ‘treatise’ (p.48) – but fails to understand or engage with Wittgenstein’s thought.

My heart sank when I came to chapter 3, titled Understanding ‘understanding’ which boils down to a superficial consideration of the difference between a ‘reductionist’ and a ‘holistic’ approach to science, the general idea that science is based on reductionism i.e. reducing systems to their smallest parts and understanding their functioning before slowly building up in scale, whereas ‘holistic’ approach tries to look at the entire system in the round. Pross gives a brief superficial overview of the two approaches before concluding that neither one gets us any closer to an answer.

Instead of interesting examples from chemistry, shallow examples from ‘philosophy’

Even more irritating than the repetition is the nature of the examples. I thought this would be a book about chemistry but it isn’t. Pross thinks he is writing a philosophical examination of the meaning of life, and so the book is stuffed with the kind of fake everyday examples which philosophers use and which are a) deeply patronising b) deeply uninformative.

Thus on page x of the introduction Pross says imagine you’re walking through a field and you come across a refrigerator. He then gives two pages explaining how a refrigerator works and saying that you, coming across a fully functional refrigerator in the middle of a field, is about as probable as the purposeful and complex forms of life can have come about by accident.

Then he writes, Imagine that you get into a motor car. We only dare drive around among ‘an endless stream of vehicular metal’ on the assumption that the other drivers have purpose and intention and will stick to the laws of the highway code.

On page 20 he introduces us to the idea of a ‘clock’ and explains how a clock is an intricate mechanism made of numerous beautifully engineered parts but it will eventually break down. But a living organism on the other hand, can repair itself.

Then he says imagine you’re walking down the street and you bump into an old friend named Bill. He looks like Bill, he talks like Bill and yet – did you know that virtually every cell in Bill’s body has renewed itself since last time you saw him, because life forms have this wonderful ability to repair and renew themselves!

Later, he explains how a Boeing 747 didn’t come into existence spontaneously, but was developed from earlier plane designs, all ultimately stemming from the Wright brothers’ first lighter than air flying machine.

You see how all these examples are a) trite b) patronising c) don’t tell you anything at all about the chemistry of life.

He tells us that if you drop a rock out the window, it falls to the ground. And yet a bird can hover in the air merely by flapping its wings! For some reason it is able to resist the Second law of Thermodynamics! How? Why? Nobody knows!

Deliberately superficial

And when he does get around to explaining anything, Pross himself admits that he is doing it in a trivial, hurried, quick, sketchy way and leaving out most of the details.

I will spare the reader a detailed discussion…

These ideas were discussed with some enthusiasm some 20-30 years ago and without going into further detail…

If that sounds too mathematical, let’s explain the difference by recounting the classical legend of the Chinese emperor who was saved in battle by a peasant farmer. (p.64)

Only in the latter pages – only when he gets to propound his own theory from about page 130 – do you realise that he is not so much making a logical point as trying to get you to see the problem from an entirely new perspective. A little like seeing the world from the Marxist or the Freudian point of view, Pross believes himself to be in possession of an utterly new way of thinking which realigns all previous study and research and thinking on the subject. It is so far-ranging and wide-sweeping that it cannot be told consecutively.

And it’s this which explains the irritating sense of repetition and circling and his constant harking forward to things he’s going to tell you, and then harking back to things he claims to have explained a few chapters earlier. The first 130 pages are like being lost in a maze.

The problem of the origin of life

People have been wondering about the special quality of live things as opposed to dead things for as long as there have been people. Darwin discovered the basis of all modern thinking about life forms, which is the theory of evolution by natural selection. But he shied away from speculating on how life first came about.

Pross – in a typically roundabout manner – lists the ‘problems’ facing anyone trying to answer the question, What is life and how did it begin?

  • life breaks the second law of thermodynamics i.e. appears to create order out of chaos, as opposed to the Law which says everything tends in the opposite direction i.e. tends towards entropy
  • life can be partly defined by its sends of purpose: quite clearly inanimate objects do not have this
  • life is complex
  • life is organised

Put another way, why is biology so different from chemistry? How are the inert reactions of chemistry different from the purposive reactions of life? He sums this up in a diagram which appears several times:

He divides the move from non-life into complex life into two phases. The chemical phase covers the move from non-life to simple life, the biological phase covers the move from simple life to complex life. Now, we know that the biological phase is covered by the iron rules of Darwinian evolution – but what triggered, and how can we account for, the move from non-life to simple life? Hence a big ?

Pross’s solution

Then, on page 127, Pross finally introduces his Big Idea and spends the final fifty or so pages of the book showing how his theory addresses all the problem in existing ‘origin of life’ literature.

His idea begins with the established knowledge that all chemical reactions seek out the most ‘stable’ format.

He introduces us to the notion that chemists actually have several working definitions of ‘stability’, and then introduces us to a new one: the notion of dynamic kinetic stability, or DKS.

He describes experiments by Sol Spiegelman in the 1980s into RNA. This showed how the RNA molecule replicated itself outside of a living cell. That was the most important conclusion of the experiment. But they also found that the RNA molecules replicated but also span off mutations, generally small strands of of RNA, some of which metabolised the nutrients far quicker than earlier varieties. These grew at an exponential rate to swiftly fill the petri dishes and push the longer, ‘correct’ RNA to extinction.

For Pross what Spiegelman’s experiments showed was that inorganic dead chemicals can a) replicate b) replicate at exponential speed until they have established a situation of dynamic kinetic stability. He then goes on to equate his concept of dynamic kinetic stability with the Darwinian one of ‘fitness’. Famously, it is the ‘fit’ which triumph in the never-ending battle for existence. Well, Pross says this concept can be rethought of as, the population which achieves greatest dynamic kinetic stability – which replicates fast enough and widely enough – will survive, will be the fittest.

fitness = dynamic kinetic stability (p.141)

Thus Darwin’s ideas about the eternal struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest can be extended into non-organic chemistry, but in a particular and special way:

Just as in the ‘regular’ chemical world the drive of all physical and chemical systems is toward the most stable state, in the replicative world the drive is also toward the most stable state, but of the kind of stability applicable within that replicative world, DKS. (p.155)

Another way of looking at all this is via the Second Law. The Second Law of Thermodynamics has universally been interpreted as militating against life. Life is an affront to the Law, which says that all energy dissipates and seeks out the state of maximum diffusion. Entropy always triumphs. But not in life. How? Why?

But Pross says that, if molecules like his are capable of mutating and evolving – as the Sol Spiegelman experiments suggest – then they only appear to contradict the Second Law. In actual fact they are functioning in what Pross now declares is an entirely different realm of chemistry (and physics). The RNA replicating molecules are functioning in the realm of replicative chemistry. They are still inorganic, ‘dead’ molecules – but they replicate quickly, mutate to find the most efficient variants, and reproduce quickly towards a state of dynamic kinetic stability.

So what he’s trying to do is show how it is possible for long complex molecules which are utterly ‘dead’, nonetheless to behave in a manner which begins to see them displaying qualities more associated with the realm of biology:

  • ‘reproduction’ with errors
  • triumph of the fittest
  • apparent ‘purpose’
  • the ability to become more complex

None of this is caused by any magical ‘life force’ or divine intervention (the two bogeymen of life scientists), but purely as a result of the blind materialistic forces driving them to take most advantage of their environment i.e. use up all its nutrients.

Pross now takes us back to that two-step diagram of how life came about, shown above – Non-Life to Simple Life, Simple Life to Complex Life, labelled the Chemical Phase and the Biological Phase, respectively.

He recaps how the second phase – how simple life evolves greater complexity – can be explained using Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection: even the most primitive life forms will replicate until they reach the limits of the available food sources, at which point any mutation leading to even a fractional differentiation in the efficiency of processing food will give the more advanced variants an advantage. The rest is the three billion year history of life on earth.

It is phase one – the step from non-life to life – which Pross has (repeatedly) explained has given many of the cleverest biologists, physicists and chemists of the 20th century sleepless nights, and which – in chapters 3 and 4 – he runs through the various theories or approaches which have failed to deliver an answer to.

Well, Pross’s bombshell solution is simple. There are not two steps – there was only ever one step. The Darwinian mechanism by which the best adapted entity wins out in a given situation applies to inert chemicals as much as to life forms.

Let me now drop the bombshell… The so-called two-stage process is not two-stage at all. It is really just once, continuous process. (p.127) … what is termed natural selection within the biological world is also found to operate in the chemical world… (p.128)

Pross recaps the findings of that Spiegelman experiment, which was that the RNA molecules eventually made errors in their replication, and some of the erroneous molecules were more efficient at using up the nutrition in the test tube. After just a day, Spiegelman found the long RNA molecules – which took a long time to replicate – were being replaced by much shorter molecules which replicated much quicker.

There, in a nutshell, is Pross’s theory in action. Darwinian competition, previously thought to be restricted only to living organisms, can be shown to apply to inorganic molecules as well – because inorganic molecules themselves show replicating, ‘competitive’ behaviour.

For Pross this insight was confirmed in experiments conducted by Gerald Joyce in 2009, who showed that a variety of types of RNA, placed in a nutrient, replicated in such a way as to establish a kind of dynamic equilibrium, where each molecule established a chemical niche and thrived on some of the nutrients, while other RNA varieties evolved to thrive on other types. To summarise:

The processes of abiogenesis and evolution are actually one physicochemical process governed by one single mechanism, rather than two discrete processes governed by two different mechanisms. (p.136)

Or:

The study of simple replicating systems has revealed an extraordinary connection – that Darwinian theory, that quintessential biological principle, can be incorporated into a more general chemical theory of evolution, one that encompasses both living and non-living systems. it is that integration that forms the basis of the theory of life I propose. (p.162)

The remaining 50 or so pages work through the implications of this idea or perspective. For example he redefines the Darwinian notion of ‘fitness’ to be ‘dynamic kinetic stability’. In other words, the biological concept of ‘fitness’ turns out, in his theory, to be merely the biological expression of a ‘more general and fundamental chemical concept’ (p.141).

He works through a number of what are traditionally taken to be life’s attributes and reinterprets in the new terms he’s introduced, in terms of dynamic kinetic stability, replicative chemistry and so on. Thus he addresses life’s complexity, life’s instability, life’s dynamic nature, life’s diversity, life’s homochirality, life’s teleonomic character, the nature of consciousness, and speculating about what alien life would look like before summing up his theory. Again.

A solution to the primary question exists and is breathtakingly simple: life on earth emerged through the enormous kinetic power of the replication reaction acting on unidentified, but simple replicating systems, apparently composed of chain-like oligomeric substances, RNA or RNA-like, capable of mutation and complexification. That process of complexification took place because it resulted in the enhancement of their stability – not their thermodynamic stability, but rather the relevant stability in the world of replicating systems, their DKS. (p.183)

A thought about the second law

Pross has explained that the Second Law of Thermodynamics apparently militates against the spontaneous generation of life, in any form, because life is organised and the second law says everything tends towards chaos. But he comes up with an ingenious solution. If one of these hypothetical early replicating molecules acquired the ability to generate energy from light – it would effectively bypass the second law. It would acquire energy from outside the ‘system’ in which it is supposedly confined and in which entropy prevails.

The existence of an energy-gathering capacity within a replicating entity effectively ‘frees’ that entity from the constraints of the Second Law in much the same way that a car engine ‘free’s a car from gravitational constrains. (p.157)

This insight shed light on an old problem, and on a fragment of the overall issue – but it isn’t enough by itself to justify his theory.

Thoughts

Several times I nearly threw away the book in my frustration before finally arriving at the Eureka moment about page 130. From there onwards it does become a lot better. As you read Pross you have the sense of a whole new perspective opening up on this notorious issue.

However, as with all these theories, you can’t help thinking that if his theory had been at all accepted by the scientific community – then you’d have heard about it by now.

If his theory really does finally solve the Great Mystery of Life which all the greatest minds of humanity have laboured over for millennia… surely it would be a bit better known, or widely accepted by his peers?

The theory relies heavily on results from Sol Spiegelman’s experiments with RNA in the 1980s. Mightn’t Spiegelman himself, or other tens of thousands of other biologists, have noticed its implications in the thirty odd years between the experiments and Pross’s book?

And if Pross has solved the problem of the origin of life, how come so many other, presumably well-informed and highly educated scientists, are still researching the ‘problem’?

(By the way, the Harvard website optimistically declares that:

Thanks to advances in technologies in these areas, answers to some of the compelling questions surrounding the origins of life in the universe were now possibly within reach… Today a larger team of researchers have joined this exciting biochemical ‘journey through the Universe’ to unravel one of humankind’s most compelling mysteries – the origins of life in the Universe.

Possibly within reach’, lol. Good times are always just around the corner in the origins-of-life industry.)

So I admit to being interested by pages 130 onwards of his book, gripped by the urgency with which he tells his story, gripped by the vehemence of his presentation, in the same way you’d be gripped by a thriller while you read it. But then you put it down and forget about it, going back to your everyday life. Same here.

It’s hard because it is difficult to keep in mind Pross’s slender chain of argumentation. It rests on the two-stage diagram – on Pross’s own interpretation of the Spiegelman experiments – on his special idea of dynamic kinetic stability – and on the idea of replicative chemistry.

All of these require looking at the problem through is lens, from his perspective – for example agreeing with the idea that the complex problem of the origin of life can be boiled down to that two-stage diagram; this is done so that we can then watch him pull the rabbit out of the hat by saying it needn’t be in two stages after all! So he’s address the problem of the diagram. But it is, after all, just one simplistic diagram.

Same with his redefining Darwin’s notion of ‘fitness’ as being identical to his notion of dynamic kinetic stability. Well, if he says so. but in science you have to get other scientists to agree with you, preferably by offering tangible proof.

These are more like tricks of perspective than a substantial new theory. And this comes back to his rhetorical strategy of repetition, to the harping on the same ideas.

The book argues its case less with evidence (there is, in the end, very little scientific ‘evidence’ for his theory – precisely two experiments, as far as I can see), but more by presenting a raft of ideas in their current accepted form (for 130 boring pages), and then trying to persuade you to see them all anew, through his eyes, from his perspective (in the final 50 pages). As he summarises it (yet again) on page 162:

The emergence of life was initiated by the emergence of a single replicating system, because that seemingly inconsequentual event opened the door to a distinctly different kind of chemistry – replicative chemistry. Entering the world of replicative chemistry reveals the existence of that other kind of stability in nature, the dynamic kinetic stability of things that are good at making more of themselves.Exploring the world of replicative chemistry helps explain why a simple primordial replicating system would have been expected to complexify over time. The reason: to increase its stability – its dynamic kinetic stability (DKS).

Note the phrase’ entering the world of replicative chemistry…’ – It sounds a little like ‘entering the world of Narnia’. It is almost as if he’s describing a religious conversion. All the facts remain the same, but new acolytes now see them in a totally different light.

Life then is just the chemical consequences that derive from the power of exponential growth operating on certain replicating chemical systems. (p.164)

(I am quoting Pross at length because I don’t want to sell his ideas short; I want to convey them as accurately as possible, and in his own words.)

Or, as he puts it again a few pages later (you see how his argument proceeds by, or certainly involves a lot of, repetition):

Life then is just a highly intricate network of chemical reactions that has maintained its autocatalytic capability, and, as already noted, that complex network emerged one step at a time starting from simpler netowrks. And the driving force? As discussed in earlier chapter, it is the drive toward greater DKS, itself based on the kinetic power of replication, which allows replicating chemical systems to develop into ever-increasing complex and stable forms. (p.185)

It’s all reasonably persuasive when you’re reading the last third of his book – but oddly forgettable once you put it down.

Fascinating facts and tasty terminology

Along the way, the reader picks up a number of interesting ideas.

  • Panspermia – the theory that life exists throughout the universe and can be carried on meteors, comets etc, and one of these landed and seeded life on earth
  • every adult human is made up of some ten thousand billion cells; but we harbour in our guts and all over the surface of our bodies ten times as many – one hundred thousand bacteria. In an adult body hundreds of billions of new cells are created daily in order to replace the ones that die on a daily basis
  • in 2017 it was estimated there may be as many as two billion species of bacteria on earth
  • the Principle of Divergence – many different species are generated from a few sources
  • teleonomy – the quality of apparent purposefulness and goal-directedness of structures and functions in living organisms
  • chiral – an adjective meaning a molecule’s mirror image is not superimposable upon the molecule itself: in fact molecules often come in mirror-image formations, known as left and right-handed
  • racemic – a racemic mixture, or racemate, is one that has equal amounts of left- and right-handed enantiomers of a chiral molecule.
  • reductionist – analysing and describing a complex phenomenon in terms of its simple or fundamental constituents
  • holistic – the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole
  • Second Law of Thermodynamics – ‘in all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves the system, the potential energy of the state will always be less than that of the initial state.’ This is also commonly referred to as entropy
  • the thermodynamic consideration – chemical reactions will only take place if the reaction products are of lower free energy than the reactants
  • catalyst – a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change
  • catalytic – requires an external catalyst to spark a chemical reaction
  • auocatalytic – a reaction which catalyses itself
  • cross-catalysis – two chemicals trigger reactions in each other
  • static stability – water, left to itself, is a stable chemical compound
  • dynamic stability – a river is always a river even though it is continually changing
  • prebiotic earth – earth before life
  • abiogenesis – the process whereby life was derived from non-living chemicals
  • systems chemistry – the chemical reactions of replicating molecules and the networks they create
  • the competitive exclusion principle – complete competitors cannot co-exist, or, Ecological differentiation is th enecessary condition for co-existence

Does anyone care?

Pross thinks the fact that biologists and biochemists can’t account for the difference between complex but inanimate molecules, and the simplest actual forms of life – bacteria – is a Very Important Problem. He thinks that:

Until the deep conceptual chasm that continues to separate living and non-living is bridged, until the two sciences – physics and biology – can merge naturally, the nature of life, and hence man’s place in the universe, will continue to remain gnawingly uncertain. (p.42)

‘Gnawingly’. Do you feel the uncertainty about whetherbiology and physics can be naturally merged is gnawing away at you? Or, as he puts it in his opening sentences:

The subject of this book addresses basic questions that have transfixed and tormented humankind for millennia, ever since we sought to better understand our place in the universe – the nature of living things and their relationship to the non-living. The importance of finding a definitive answer to these questions cannot be overstated – it would reveal to us not just who and what we are, but would impact on our understanding of the universe as a whole. (p.viii)

I immediately disagreed. ‘The importance of finding a definitive answer to these questions cannot be overstated’? Yes it can. Maybe, just maybe – it is not very important at all.

What do we mean by ‘important’, anyway? Is it important to you, reading this review, to realise that the division between the initial, chemical phase of the origin of life and the secondary, biological phase, is in fact a delusion, and that both processes can be accounted for by applying Darwinian selection to supposedly inorganic chemicals?

If you tried to tell your friends and family 1. how easy would you find it to explain? 2. would you seriously expect anyone to care?

Isn’t it, in fact, more likely that the laws or rules or theories about how life arose from inanimate matter are likely to be so technical, so specialised and so hedged around with qualifications, that only highly trained experts can really understand them?

Maybe Pross has squared the circle and produced a feasible explanation of the origins of life on earth. Maybe this book really is – The Answer! But in which case – why hasn’t everything changed, why hasn’t the whole human race breathed a collective sigh of relief and said, NOW we understand how it all started, NOW we know what it all means, NOW I understand who I am and my place in the universe?

When I explained Pross’s theory, in some detail, to my long-suffering wife (who did a life sciences degree) she replied that, quite obviously chemistry and biology are related; anyone who’s studied biology knows it is based on chemistry. She hardly found it ‘an extraordinary connection’. When I raised it with my son, who is studying biology at university, he’d never heard of Pross or his theory.

So one’s final conclusion is that our understanding of ‘The nature of life, and hence man’s place in the universe’ has remained remarkably unchanged by this little book and will, in all likelihood, remain so.


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The Vanquished by Robert Gerwarth (2016)

‘Everywhere counter-revolutionaries run about and swagger; beat them down! Beat their heads where you find them! If counter-revolutionaries were to gain the upper hand for even a single hour, there will be no mercy for any proletarian. Before they stifle the revolution, suffocate them in their own blood!’
(Hungarian communist Tibor Szamuely, quoted page 134)

The sub-title sums it up – Why the First World War Failed to End 1917-1923. We Brits, like the French, date the end of the Great War to Armistice Day 11 November 1918, and the two-minute silence every year confirms our happy sense of finality and completion.

But across a wide swathe of Eastern Europe, from Finland, through the Baltic states, all of Russia, Poland, down through the Balkans, across Anatolia and into the Middle East, the violence didn’t end. In many places it intensified, and dragged on for a further four or five years.

Individual studies have long been available on the plight of individual nations – revolutionary Russia, post-Ottoman Turkey and so on. But Gerwarth claims his book is the first one to bring together the tumult in all these places and deal with them as symptoms of one deep cause: losing the war not only led to the break-up of Europe’s defeated empires – the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire – it undermined the very idea of traditional governments and plunged huge areas into appalling violence.

Gerwarth categorises the violence into a number of types:

  1. Wars between countries (of the traditional type) – thus war between Greece and Turkey carried on until 1923 (200,000 military casualties), Russia’s invasion of Poland in 1920 (250,000 dead or missing), Romania’s invasion of Hungary in 1919-1920.
  2. Nationalist wars of independence i.e. wars to assert the independence of ethnic groups claiming a new autonomy – the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Ukrainians.
  3. Revolutionary violence i.e. the attempt to overthrow existing governments in the name of socialist or other political causes. There were communist putsches in Berlin, Munich and Vienna. Hungary became a communist state under Bela Kun for 115 days in 1919.
  4. Civil wars – the Russian civil war was the biggest, with some 3 million dead in its three year duration, but Gerwarth also describes the Finnish Civil War, which I’d never heard of, in which over 1% of the population died and whose ramifications, apparently, continue to this day.

The lesson is best summarised in a blurb on the back of the book by the ever-incisive Max Hastings. For many nations and peoples, violent conflict had started even before 1914 and continued for another three, four or five after 1918 — until, exhausted by conflict, for these people, order became more important than freedom. As the right-wing Waldemar Pabst, murderer of Rosa Luxemberg and Karl Liebknecht and organiser of Austria’s paramilitary Heimwehr put it, the populations of these chaotic regions needed:

the replacement of the old trinity of the French Revolution [liberté, egalité, fraternité]… with a new trinity: authority, order and justice.’ (quoted on p.141)

The communist coups in all these countries were defeated because:

  1. the majority of the population didn’t want it
  2. the actual ‘class enemies’, the landowners, urban bourgeoisie, conservative politicians, were able to call on large reserves of battle-hardened officer class to lead militias and paramilitaries into battle against the ‘reds’

No wonder T.S. Eliot, in 1923, referred to James Joyce’s use of myth in Ulysses as the only way to make sense of ‘the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’.

Gerwarth’s book gives the detail of this panorama, especially in the relatively unknown regions of central and eastern Europe – Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania – and with special attention to the catastrophic Greek invasion of Turkey and ensuing war.

Turkey

Turkey experienced the Young Turk revolution against the old rule of the Sultan in 1908. During the ensuing confusion across the Ottoman Empire, Austro-Hungary annexed the Ottoman territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Then in 1911, across the Mediterranean, Italy invaded and seized modern-day Libya from the Turks. The Balkan Wars of 1912 to 1913 led to the loss of almost all of the Empire’s European territories, and was followed by a series of coups and counter coups in Istanbul.

All this upheaval was before Turkey even entered the Great War, which it did with an attack on the Russian Black Sea coast in October 1914. Skipping over the Great War itself – which featured, for Turkey, the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the Arab Revolt of 1916 – defeat in the war led the Allies to dismember the remainder of the Ottoman Empire by the Treaty of Sèvres of 1920.

Opposition to this treaty led to the Turkish War of Independence led by Mustafa Kemal (later given the surname ‘Atatürk’) and the final abolition of the sultanate and the old Ottoman forms of government in 1922.

At which point the Greeks invaded, hoping to take advantage of Turkey’s weakness and seize the Aegean coast and islands. But the Greek attack ran out of steam, the tide turned and Turkish forces under Atatürk swept the Greek forces back down to the sea. Greek atrocities against Turkish villagers was followed by counter-reprisals by the Turks against the Greek population of the coast, which escalated into the mass exchange of populations. Hundreds of thousands of Greeks were forced to flee the Turkish mainland.

The point is that by 1923 Turkey had been in violent political turmoil for some 15 years. You can see why the majority of the population will have opted, in Max Hasting’s words, for Order over Freedom, for any party which could guarantee peace and stability.

Brutalisation and extermination

Gerwarth questions the ‘brutalisation thesis’, an idea I had broadly subscribed to.

This theory is that the Great War, with its four long years of grindingly brutal bloodshed, dehumanised enormous numbers of fighting men, who returned to their respective societies hardened to violence, desensitised, and that this permanently brutalised European society. It introduced a new note of total war, of the killing of civilian populations, the complete destruction of towns and cities, which hadn’t existed before. Up till now I had found this thesis persuasive.

Gerwarth says modern scholarship questions the brutalisation thesis because it can be shown that the vast majority of troops on all sides simply returned to their societies, were demobbed and got on with civilian lives in peace. The percentage who went into paramilitaries and Freikorps units, the numbers which indulged in revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence, was very small.

But he partly contradicts himself by going on to say that the violence immediately after the war was new in nature: all the parties in the Great War were fighting, ultimately, to wring concessions from opposing regimes which they envisaged staying in place and legitimacy. This is how war had been fought in Europe for centuries. You defeat your enemy; he cedes you this or that bit of territory or foreign colony, and things continue as before.

But in the post-war period a completely new ideology appeared – something unprecedented in history – the wish not just to defeat but to exterminate your enemy, whether they be class enemies (hated by communists) or ethnic enemies (hated by all brands of nationalists) or ‘reds’ (hated by conservatives and the new fascist parties alike).

This extermination ideology, mixed with the unprecedented collapse of empires which had given rise to a host of new small nations, created a new idea – that these new small nations emerging in and after the war needed to feel ‘cleansed’ and ‘pure’. Everyone not genuinely German or Czech or Hungarian or Ukrainian or whatever, must be expelled.

This new doctrine led to the vast relocations of peoples in the name of what a later generation would call ‘ethnic cleansing’, but that name doesn’t really capture the extraordinary scale of the movements and the depths of the hatreds and bitternesses which it unleashed.

For example, the final peace in the Turko-Greek war resulted in the relocation of some 2 million civilians (1.2 million Greeks expelled from Turkey, 400,000 Muslims expelled from Greece). Huge numbers of other ethnic groups were moved around between the new post-war nations e.g. Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Czechoslovakia etc.

And of course Britain experienced none of this. Between the wars we found Europe east of Germany a dangerous and exotic place (see the pre-war thrillers of Eric Ambler for the noir feel of spies and secret police they convey) but also left us incapable of really imagining what it felt like to live in such completely fractured and damaged societies.


The ‘only now…’ school of history

Although the facts, figures, atrocities, murders, rapes and violence which plagued this period are hard to read about, one of the most striking things in the whole book comes in Gerwarth’s introduction where he discusses the ebb and flow of fashion, or waves of historical interpretation regarding this period.

He dismisses traditional French and especially British attitudes towards Eastern Europe and the Balkans as a form of ‘orientalism’ i.e. the racist belief that there is something intrinsically violent and brutal about the people of those regions. Part of this attitude no doubt stemmed from Great War-era propaganda which portrayed the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires as somehow intrinsically despotic and repressive. Part from the political violence which plagued these countries in the post war era, and which generally ended up with them being ruled by ultra-conservative or fascist regimes.

Modern scholarship, Gerwarth says, has switched to the opposite view, with many modern historians claiming those regimes were more liberal than is often claimed, more stable and more open to reform than the wartime allies claimed. As he puts it:

This reassessment has been an emphatic one for both Imperial Germany and the Hapsburg Empire, which appear in a much more benign (or at least more ambivalent) light to historians today than they did in the first eight decades after 1918. (p.7)

That last phrase leapt out at me. He seems to be saying that modern historians, working solely from written documents, claim to know more about these empires than people alive at the time, than contemporaries who travelled through and experienced them and encountered and spoke with their rulers or populations and fought against them.

Quite casually, it seems to me, he is making a sweeping and quite unnerving statement about the control which historians exert over ‘reality’. Gerwarth’s remark echoes similar sentiments I’ve recently read by historians like Rana Mitter (China’s War with Japan 1937–1945) and Chris Wickham (The Inheritance of Rome) to the effect that only now are we getting to properly understand period A or B of history because of reasons x, y or z (the most common reason for reassessments of 20th century history being the new access historians have to newly-opened archives in the former Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, China).

I am a sceptic. I don’t believe we can know anything with much certainty. And a fan of later Wittgenstein who theorised that almost all communication – talking, texts, movies, you name it – are best understood as games, games with rules and regulations but games nonetheless, which change and evolve as the players do, and are interpreted differently by different players, at different times.

Currently there are some seven and a half billion humans alive on the planet – so there’s the potential for at least seven billion or so interpretations of anything.

If academic historians produce narratives which broadly agree it is because they’re playing the same academic game according to the same rules – they share agreed definitions of what history actually is, of how you define ‘evidence’, of what historical scholarship is, agreement about appropriate formats to present it in, about style and voice and rhetorics (dispassionate, objective, factual etc).

But the fact that the same set of evidence – the nature of, say, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, can give rise to such wildly divergent interpretations, even among the professionals, only fuels my profound scepticism about our ability to know anything. For decades historians have thought the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a repressive autocracy which was too encrusted and conservative to cope with changes in technology and society and so was doomed to collapse. Now, Gerwarth informs me, modern scholarship claims that, on the contrary, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was more flexible and adaptive than its contemporaries or anyone writing in the last 80 years has thought.

For contemporary historians to claim that only now can the truth revealed strikes me as, to put it politely, optimistic.

  1. Unless you are a religious zealot, there is no absolute truth
  2. There are plenty of dissenting voices to any historical interpretation
  3. If there’s one thing we can be certain of, it’s that future historians will in turn disagree and reinterpret everything all over again a) because fashions change b) because they’ll be able to do so in the light of events which haven’t happened yet and trends which aren’t clear to us c) because they have to come up with new theories and interpretations in order to keep their jobs.

When I was a young man ‘we’ i.e. all the students I knew and most of the liberal media and political commentators, all thought Ronald Reagan was a doddery imbecile. Now I read books about the Cold War which claim he was among the all-time greatest American Presidents for playing the key role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism.

Which story is true ? Or are they both true and will more ‘truths’ be revealed in the future? If Vladimir Putin unleashes a nuclear war, will the collapse of communism – which 20 years later has given rise to a new aggressive Russian nationalism – come, in time, to be seen as a bad thing, as the prelude to some disastrous world war?

History is, in the end, a matter of opinion, a clash of opinions. Historians may well use evidence scrupulously to support thoroughly researched points of view – but they can only access a subset of the evidence (no historian can read everything, no historian can read every human language, no book can reference every text ever written during a period) and will tend to use that evidence selectively to support the thesis or idea they have developed.

Therefore, I don’t believe that any of the history books I’m currently reading reveal the only-now-can-it-be-told truth.

But I do understand that academics are under more pressure than ever before to justify their salaries by churning out articles and books. It follows that historians, like literary critics and other humanities scholars, must come up with new interpretations, or apply their interpretations to new subjects, simply in order to keep their jobs. It’s in this context that I read the pronouncements of only now historians – as the kind of rhetoric which gets articles published and books commissioned, which can be proclaimed in lecture theatres, at international conferences and – if you’re lucky and manage to wangle a lucrative TV deal – spoken to camera (as done by Mary Beard, Niall Ferguson, Ruth Goodman, Bettany Hughes, Dan Jones, David Reynolds, Simon Schama, Dan Snow, David Starkey, Lucy Worsley, Michael Wood).

In other words, I read statements like this as reflections of the economic and cultural climate, or discourse, of our times – heavily embedded in the economic necessity of historians to revise and review their predecessors’ findings and assumptions in order to keep their jobs. Maybe these new interpretations are bolstered by more data, more information and more research than ever before. Maybe they are closer to some kind of historical ‘truth’. But sure as eggs is eggs, in a generation’s time, they in their turn will be outmoded and outdated, fading in the sunlight outside second-hand bookshops.

For now the new historical consensus is a new twist, a new wrinkle, which appeals by its novelty and its exciting ability to generate new ideas and insights. It spawns new discourse. It creates new vistas of text. It continues the never-ending game of hide-and-seek which is ‘the humanities’.

History is a cousin of literature with delusions of grandeur – at least literature knows that it is made up. And both genres, anyway, come under the broader rubric of rhetoric i.e. the systematic attempt to persuade the reader of something.

Notes and bibliography

One of the blurbs on the back says Gerwarth’s achievement has been to synthesise an unprecedented amount of primary and secondary material into his new narrative and this is certainly supported by the elephantine size of the book’s appendices. The book has 446 numbered pages but no fewer than 161 of these are made up of the acknowledgements (5 pages), index (22 pages), bibliography (62 pages) and endnotes (72 pages). If you subtract the Introduction (15 pages), Epilogue (19 pages) and the three blank pages at the start of each of the three parts, then there’s only 446-198 = 248 pages of main text. Only 55% of the book’s total pages are actual text.

But it’s the length of the bibliography and endnotes which impresses – 134 pages! I think it’s the only set of endnotes I know which is so long that it has 8 pages of glossy illustrations embedded within it, rather than in the actual text.


Conclusion

As with so many histories of the 20th century I am left thinking that humanity is fundamentally incapable of governing itself.

Bumbling fools I can see why so many people believe in a God — because they just can’t face the terrible thought that this is it – Donald Trump and Theresa May, Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin, these are as good as you’re going to get, humanity! These are the people in charge and people like this will always be in charge: not the terrifyingly efficient totalitarian monsters of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but bumbling fools, incompetents and paranoid bullies.

The most ill-fated bumblers in this book must be the rulers of post-war Greece who decided (egged on by the foolish David Lloyd-George) to invade the western coast of Turkey in 1921. The book ends with a comprehensive account of their miserable failure, which resulted not only in appalling massacres and bloodshed as the humiliated Greek army retreated to the coast and was shipped back to Greece, but led to the expulsion of all Greek communities from Turkey – some 1.2 million people – vastly swelling the Greek population and leaving the country almost bankrupt for decades to come.

Hats off to the Greek Prime Minister who supervised all this, Eleftherios Venizelos. Well done, sir.

Intractable But half the reasons politicians appear idiots, especially in retrospect, is because they are dealing with impossible problems. The current British government which is bumbling its way through Brexit cannot succeed because they have been set an impossible task.

Similarly, the Western politicians and their civil servants who met at Versailles after the Great War were faced with the impossible challenge of completely redrawing the map of all Europe as well as the Middle East, following the collapse of the Hohenzollern, Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires, with a view to giving the peoples of Europe their own ‘nation states’.

Quite simply, this proved too complicated a task to achieve, and their multiple failures to achieve it not only led to the Second World War but linger on to this day.

To this day ethnic tensions continue to exist in Hungary and Bulgaria about unfair borders, not to mention among the statelets of former Yugoslavia whose borders are very much still not settled.

And what about the violent can of worms which are the borders of the Middle East – Iraq, Syria, Jordan – or the claims for statehood of the Kurds, still the cause of terrorism and counter-terrorism in eastern Turkey, still fighting to maintain their independence in northern Iraq.

If the diplomats of Versailles failed to solve many of these problems, have we in our times done so very much better? How are Afghanistan and Iraq looking after 15 years of intervention from the West? Are they the peace-loving democracies which George W. Bush promised?

Not easy, is it? It’s so simple-minded to ridicule diplomats and civil servants of the Versailles settlements for making a pig’s ear of so much of their task. But have we done much better? Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Reading this book makes you begin to wonder whether managing modern large human societies peacefully and fairly may simply be impossible.

Rainbow nation or pogroms? Reading page after page after page describing how people who were essentially the same flesh and blood but happened to speak different languages or have different religious beliefs or wear funny hats or the wrong design of jacket, proved not only incapable of living together, but all too often turned on each other in homicidal frenzy — reading these 250 pages of mayhem, pogroms, genocide, mass rape and massacres makes me worry, as ever, about the viability of modern multicultural societies.

People from different races, ethnic groups, languages, religions and traditions living alongside each other all sounds fine so long as the society they inhabit is relatively peaceful and stable. But put it under pressure, submit it to economic collapse, poverty and hardship, and the history is right here to prove that time and again people will use the pettiest differences as excuses to start picking on each other. And that once the violence starts, it again and again spirals out of control until no one can stop it.

And sometimes the knowledge that we have created for ourselves just such a multicultural society, which is going to come under an increasing number of economic, social and environmental stresses in the years ahead, fills me with fear.

Petersburg. Belgrade. Budapest. Berlin. Vienna. Constantinople. The same scenes of social collapse, class war and ethnic cleansing took place across Europe and beyond between 1918 and 1923


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